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Jeanne Baret, the first woman to go around the world breaking the law

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History is littered with examples of women who had to cross-dress, disguise themselves as men, to defy the limitations inherent to their sex. There are the famous cases of Concepcion Arenal —to be able to enter the University—, the warrior Joan of Arc or the pirate Mary Anne Talbot. An adventure with these same ingredients, but much more unknown, is what the humble Jeanne Baret in the XVIII century. A member of the successful Bougainville scientific-maritime expedition in the service of her romantic partner, the botanist Philibert Commerson, she became the first woman to complete a trip around the world after overcoming an arduous and long journey.

His biography is now recovered by the researcher Maria Teresa Telleriaprofessor emeritus of the CSIC and director of the Royal Botanical Garden of Madrid between 1994 and 2006 —she was the first woman to achieve this position— in Without the king’s permission (Espasa), an essay with literary license that narrates with great passion the priceless contribution made to science by the brave Jeanne, whose true identity could only be confirmed after more than a year of crossing and through the mediation of an indigenous tribe.

Jeanne Baret was born into a poor peasant family in La Comelle, a commune in the Burgundy region, in central France, in mid-July 1740. The young woman, who almost miraculously learned to read and write, She was orphaned very early – her mother was the one who taught her the medicinal properties of some herbs before she died – and became the housekeeper of the famous botanist Philibert Commerson. Both had met in Toulon-sur-Arroux, where the wise man was bewitched by that woman who knew the secret of plants.

She became pregnant – she was forced to sign a document in which she would not reveal the identity of the father, Commerson himself, who was a widower and already had a son – and they moved to Paris, where the naturalist, who had fallen seriously ill, was recruited to participate in the scientific expedition of Louis Antoine de Bougainville. It was a company financed by the French Crown that sought to discover new lands, map unknown territories and open new trade routes.

Restless by nature and concerned about the health and fate of her husband, Jeanne Baret drew up an unlikely plan to circumvent the laws of the French Royal Navy, which only allowed male crew: “A woman by birth and a servant by condition, life gave her She had been assigned the worst role, but that could be changed, she was sure. I would erase the woman by dressing up as a man and would persist in the role of servant being his servant. That was her decision. Transvestite she could embark on the expedition. Transgressing the king’s precepts and breaking God’s law would be the payment of his determination,” writes María Teresa Telleria.

Return to France

The expedition, which would make Bougainville the first Frenchman to circumnavigate the planet, was made up of two ships: the Boudeuse, the main frigate; and the Etoilea cargo ship to transport supplies. Philibert and Jeanne, who had tested the effectiveness of his disguise – he camouflaged his chest with very tight bandages – on the Parisian streets, got on this second urka. They left Rochefort on February 1, 1767 and joined the other ship on June 13, 1767 in Rio de Janeiro, after two missed appointments in the Falklands and at the mouth of the Río de la Plata.

The state of health of the official botanist was very bad during some moments of a trip that would last three years. In that context, much of her field work was done by her, who was able to camouflage her beardless face by locking herself in Commerson’s cabin with the excuse that she had a lot of work and where she had a private latrine. Jeanne collected and cataloged more than 3,000 species of plants. —the most important was the one they called bungavilla, in honor of the admiral— throughout the entire territory that the expedition covered: Montevideo, Rio de Janeiro, the Strait of Magellan, New Ireland, Batavia, Isle of France or Tahiti, where The natives finally exposed their ruse.

Cover of ‘Without the King’s Permission’.

Espasa

“M. Commerson must be reproached for allowing a girl, disguised as a man, to follow him around the world with him; but the indefatigable courage with which she followed him and served him in her painful expeditions proves that she could not have chosen a better servant, and the singular discretion with which she went unnoticed for more than a year on the ship proves that she had neither the defects that can be attributed to her sex, nor the adornments that could make her suspicious. that costume,” wrote a friend of the botanist in 1775, two years after his death.

When Jeanne’s true identity was discovered, an uncomfortable scenario for the commander, Commerson asked him to let him disembark on Mauritius and study the flora and fauna of that region. Bougainville signed the certificate on November 15, 1768, also freeing the woman. They passed five years identifying species on trips to Madagascar and other places hidden, until the naturalist died on March 14, 1773. Baret was left alone, in charge of a small child and without assets. She started working in a filthy tavern, where she met Jean Dubernata sailor whom she married shortly after and prepared the trip back to France.

At the beginning of April 1775, Jeanne Baret docked in the port of L’Orient, becoming the first woman in history to circumnavigate the world. In 1785, the Ministry of the Navy granted him a pension of two hundred pounds for his behavior and work alongside Philibert Commerson. She died on August 5, 1807, at the age of 77, and as has happened to many other women, her name was buried in oblivion.

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